An Alaska legislative ethics committee has concluded that Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, violated state law by blocking a critic from commenting on her legislative Facebook page.
In part because the Alaska Legislature hasn’t updated its social media policies since 2011, the committee recommended no punishment in findings adopted Dec. 17 and released on Christmas Eve.
The committee directed Reinbold to “refrain from blocking members of the public from commenting on her legislative social media site(s) solely for expressing opinions in disagreement with her own.”
After the initial publication of this article, Reinbold said she “will be appealing this premature decision.”
The complaint was filed in February by Rick Sinnott, a retired Fish and Game biologist who challenged Reinbold’s statements about COVID-19 but saw those comments removed and himself banned from her page. An investigation lasted from April through November.
The ethics committee concluded that “any social media used by a legislator, which is supported by state resources, including staff time, and subsequently seeks to block specific individual comments solely because those comments disagree with the legislator’s position is in violation of the Legislative Ethics Act.”
Sinnott said he isn’t happy that it took the ethics committee 10 months to rule on his complaint.
“I also wasn’t very happy that Senator Reinbold wasn’t chastised, at the very least, over this ethics violation. I am certainly not the only person she has attempted to silence,” he said.
Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla and a member of the ethics committee, declined to comment on the case, citing the confidentiality of the proceedings and the possibility of an appeal.
In general, he said, he believes the only time someone should be blocked from commenting on a legislator’s official social media page is if there’s “a real threat of harm or violence or something obscene that doesn’t contribute to the conversation.”
Federal appeals courts have split on the issue of whether elected officials may ban constituents from their social media pages without violating those constituents’ First Amendment rights.
Wilson said he believes the Legislature should reexamine its policies, and the ethics committee concurred, recommending a review by a different committee.
Reinbold is facing a civil lawsuit from a different constituent who was also blocked from commenting on her official Facebook page.
In a written response to the Legislature’s committee on legislative ethics, she said the investigation “appears to be a political witch hunt” and believes the release may have been timed to influence the case against her.
“Absolutely not,” said Jerry Anderson, administrator of the ethics committee.
“There’s absolutely no connection with the complaint and that legal case, with us delaying it or making it faster,” he said, attributing the Christmas Eve release to the time needed to investigate the complaint, then notify involved parties after the committee voted to uphold the complaint.
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, faced a similar civil lawsuit on identical grounds this fall, but the plaintiff in that case dropped the matter after Micciche agreed to unblock them and issued a statement on the issue.
“I believe in open communication with my constituents and hope to serve as an example for others that may feel that silencing disagreement is acceptable. It isn’t,” Micciche said at the time.
Reinbold has criticized the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and has been an outspoken opponent of COVID-19 vaccination and face mask requirements. Earlier this year, she was banned from flying on Alaska Airlines after repeatedly arguing with airline staff about the requirement that passengers wear face masks.
Writing after the initial publication of this article, Reinbold said that because Facebook is a private forum, not a government-sponsored public forum, she believes the committee’s interpretation of law is incorrect.
In addition, she said, social media is not a required legislative duty, but a personal choice.
“Their sanction against hiding comments or blocking people can be considered ex post facto law. There is no current state law or policy addressing blocking or hiding comments on social media,” she said. “The Legislature needs clarification as to whether the preemptive ethics committee directive/sanction is for all legislators or just one specific legislator. Ethics’ recommended social media policies need to be updated, yet they seem to have made a determination to enforce a policy that is unwritten and unapproved, which is ex post facto law.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add comment from state Sen. Lora Reinbold and Rick Sinnott received after this article’s initial publication.